Many people have an apple tree in their garden. It may be one that they have planted themselves for ornamental purposes, or an older tree of an unknown variety. But how often is the fruit of this tree actually put to good use?
Sometimes the incentive isn’t there, especially if the apples are too sharp or bitter to eat. Frequently, however, in our hectic lives, this fruit lies unwanted, rotting on the ground or providing food for the birds and the beasts.
Well, why allow perfectly good fruit go to waste when you can enjoy its wonderful fermented bounty? Cider-making is essentially an easy process that can be done in the comfort of your own home.
You just need a few simple pieces of equipment to turn a wealth of unwanted apples into their ultimate form – glorious cider.
How to make your own cider
Step 1: select the apples
Any apple can be used for making cider, but it must be accepted that nature will determine what the flavour profile will end up like. To make the best cider, you need to ensure that the fruit is ripe.
This can be done with a simple prod test – when you can leave an indentation in the skin with your thumbnail, they’re ready to go.
Importantly, also, the fruit needs to be clean, so as to not introduce spoilage bacteria. You don’t want any mud or bird poo, so wash your apples with a hose pipe or by dunking them into a bucket of water.
Step two: juice extraction
This step of the home cider-making process is probably the most challenging because of the need for some equipment and/or elbow grease. Ideally you will have access to an apple mill – a contraption designed to crush, chop or chew the apples into a pulp.
If you’re making a very small quantity of cider, you can do this by simply halving apples and popping them into a food processor, using the coarsest blade.
This, however, is quite laborious (not to mention messy). The other very simple option is to place the fruit into a bucket, known as a ‘trub’, and pound it with a big pole until it turns into a pulp. Prior to use, the equipment does not need to sterilised, but it should be thoroughly rinsed.
Regardless of your methodology, this pulp now needs to be squeezed, or pressed, in order to separate juice from the solid component, which is not wanted. This is done by applying pressure to the pulp and straining the juice through a suitable medium.
The most basic form of kit for this part of the process is a basket press, which you can buy fairly cheaply and easily. If you’re looking to make hundreds rather than tens of litres, a small pack press would be best.
No matter what press type, the premise is the same: to exert pressure. The squeezed pulp releases the juice, which passes through a cloth, ensuring a most satisfying flow of juice which can be collected in a bucket or jug.
A fantastic range of milling and pressing equipment for all scales and types of hobbyist can be found at vigopresses.co.uk.
Step three: fermentation and maturation
First, choose a fermenting vessel. If you are making a small quantity, a 4.5-litre demijohn is ideal.
For a larger quantity, you may wish to use a 25-litre plastic container. When you use a basket press, you would hope to achieve a 50 per cent juice yield: that is to say that every 10kg of fruit pulped and pressed will equate to 5 litres (9 pints) of juice.
Ensure your container is free of detritus and thoroughly rinsed before pouring in your juice. If you are concerned your container is still not super-fresh, you could use a basic sanitiser for a belt-and-braces approach.
You may choose to measure the sugar content of the juice using a hydrometer – it looks like a thermometer with a bulbous end. Place this into the juice, it bobs around and you read a measurement of where the hydrometer sits in the juice. It”s actually measuring the density of the juice which is a proxy for the sugar content, which you can then extrapolate into a potential alcohol.
Two choices now present themselves – either allow a ‘wild’ fermentation to occur, or add a cultured yeast. A wild fermentation can give extra complexity, but you lose control and it could gain unpleasant characters. A cultured yeast gives ultimate control over the fermentation.
Either way, it is advisable to add a small quantity of sulphur dioxide to the juice, to give it some protection from spoilage bacteria and yeast.
Sulphur dioxide is most easily purchased in the form of Campden tablets. If you want to go ‘wild’, add half a Campden tablet per 5 litres of juice. If you’re adding a cultured yeast, add one Campden tablet per 5 litres of juice, wait 24 hours, then add the yeast.
Both Campden tablets, hydrometers and a range of cultured yeast are easily available from all good home brew shops.
Place the fermentation vessel into a cool/mild environment with little temperature fluctuation (between 12–15C will be perfect). Any colder, and you will get a longer, slower fermentation, but any higher, and the fermentation will run away too quickly, potentially increasing the likelihood of off flavours.
With a wild fermentation, depending on the temperature, it might be a few days before the cider shows visible signs of fermentation.
If in any doubt, add a cultured yeast to the juice. Under normal circumstances, within 48 hours of adding the yeast, you will start to see the signs of fermentation, notably the production of bubbles. This is carbon dioxide – the primary by-product of the cider-making process.
Once the fermentation has started, put a lid on the fermentation vessel, but ensure you place an airlock on the top.
This ‘bubbler’ is a small plastic pot which you put water into – this will allow the carbon dioxide to escape, but keep the air out.
Fermentation will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks if you have used a cultured yeast, but could take several months if you have allowed it to go ‘wild’, again depending on the temperature.
When is cider fermentation complete?
Fermentation will have finished when you notice that the liquid clears, bubbling ceases and a heavy sediment deposit forms at the bottom of the vessel.
This sediment is known as ‘lees’ and is formed from the dead yeast. You want to remove the cider from the lees: do so by siphoning the clear, freshly fermented liquid into another clean container, a process known as ‘racking’.
Ensure that the container is full to the brim, topping up with a bit of water if necessary. Then, screw the lid down nice and tight.
The cider will now sit in this maturation container for as long as it takes to soften and become palatable, which could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending upon the type of fruit that has been used.
You have to make this decision yourself. You can drink the cider from this container and it will be still and dry, but if you choose to do so, you must consume it within a few days (not always an issue, granted!).
The reason for this haste is that by taking out a quantity of cider, you allow air, and all its associated spoilage organisms, to enter.
Step four: bottling
The preferable option is to bottle the cider. First, however, it is absolutely crucial to ensure that no sugar remains. If fermentable sugar is present when bottled, the bottle could explode under the pressure.
You can check no sugar remains by using a hydrometer. If the reading on the hydrometer is 1.000, then you’re good to go.
If the hydrometer reading is greater than 1.000, then you still have a little bit of sugar left to ferment. You can encourage the final portion of fermentation by putting the cider in a warm place (above 20C).
Take the dry, still cider and pour it into standard 500ml (1-pint) beer bottles with the addition of one level teaspoon of granulated sugar to each. Ensure that the bottles are rinsed clean, ideally using a mild sanitiser first.
Using an inexpensive and easily purchased capping tool, put crown caps on the bottles. The yeast that is still within the cider will enable a secondary fermentation of this newly added sugar in the bottle, producing a touch more alcohol, but, crucially, producing carbon dioxide too.
This gets trapped in the bottle and will dissolve into the cider, creating a natural sparkle and also preserving the cider. The bottles should be stored somewhere cool (around 12C) to allow a gradual but full secondary in-bottle fermentation.
Step five: drinking
The most important and enjoyable step of all! The cider could stay at its prime for at least a couple of years if the carbon dioxide has successfully filled all of the headspace in the bottle.